For a completely fresh outlook on cookware and cooking, meet our Anolon Cook & Tell Blogger of the Week, Michael Chu of Cooking for Engineers. Michael‘s approach to cooking comes from his engineer’s sense of order and experimentation and he incorporates these principles of engineering into his cooking and food blogging. Here, he shares his thoughts and feelings on topics as wide ranging as culinary technique to cooking spray. He gave the Anolon Nouvelle Copper Stainless Steel 3 Quart Sauté Pan a rather brutal road test and was thrilled with the results, which you can read about on his blog. Enter to win this week’s featured pan in our Anolon Cook & Tell Giveaway on Facebook.
1. Michael, what was the inspiration for your food blog, and the name, Cooking for Engineers”?
Before starting Cooking For Engineers, I was working as a full-time engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area and would have friends and co-workers over for dinner every couple weeks where I would cook a large meal for everyone to share. When I started the website, I didn’t know what to call it and decided on Cooking For Engineers because it could be read two different ways: (1) a site to provide instructions to engineers on how to cook and (2) a description of what I was doing which was cooking for a group of people who happen to be engineers. The site has evolved since then to really focus on food and cooking for anyone who has an analytical mindset regardless of technical or scientific background.
2. Did you grow up in a food-centric family? Which person in your life, or life experience, most influenced your passion for cooking?
My parents cooked nearly every meal that I could remember with just a few breaks for pizza once in a long while. Now that I’ve been working full-time for over a dozen years, I realize what a huge accomplishment that was. However, it wasn’t until after college – and I started to learn to cook for those weekly dinner parties – that I got inspired to learn more and more about cooking. These days, I find inspiration when trying to prepare something for my wife or when challenged by friends and readers.
3. What type of kitchen tools or equipment do you find to be over-rated? Which ones are under-appreciated, and should be used more by home cooks?
It’s hard to pick out a tool that is over-rated because people have different cooking styles and what works for one person might not work for another. But, since I’m picking one, I’ll choose the cooking spray (those canned products that spray a mist of oil onto pans). Cooking sprays are nice on paper because they provide such a small amount of oil that it effectively contributes no calories to the food being cooked. Unfortunately, I find cooking sprays to release such a fine mist that a thin layer of oil settles on pretty much anything in the kitchen (and, if you have an open floor plan like I do, the dining area as well) over time. Cooking sprays are also not pure oil and contain one or more emulsifiers along with a propellant. The emulsifier (usually soy lecithin) is difficult to remove through washing and can cause a tacky polymer layer to build up on a pan overtime. This is especially bad in non-stick pans which cannot be scrubbed vigorously or cleaned with a cleaner like Barkeepers Friend.
It’s been eight years since I wrote Cooking For Engineer’s article on kitchen scales, and I still believe that a scale is the most essential tool that home cooks don’t use enough. Partially at fault is the lack of cookbooks and recipes where weight is provided as part of ingredient measurements, but once a cook develops the habit of using a scale, consistency and repeatability becomes much easier every time a recipe is made (or revised). Without a scale, variability in ingredient amounts can make large enough differences in recipes that it becomes extremely difficult to perfect a recipe over time or even to repeat that “magical” dessert made over a year ago.
4. You’ve moved from Northern California to Austin, Texas. Has the transition changed or otherwise affected what you cook at home?
We cook a lot more these days. It used to be that I cooked to experiment (or “play”) in the kitchen so my home kitchen was more a test kitchen than one that operated for the purpose of serving meals. In the Bay Area, there are so many great places to eat out at all levels of pricing (that are open at all hours) that it’s no big deal to experiment and mess up. In far southwest Austin, where we live, there isn’t as much flexibility and selection when it comes to truly excellent food. We cook more for “sustenance” than for experimentation. Having said that, my kitchen and pantry is much better equipped here in Austin than in my claustrophobic kitchen in California. We have as many ingredients (perhaps more) available with the incredible selection at our local markets and hard to find tools or ingredients can usually be procured online these days (compared to just a few years ago).
5. What cooking technique do you feel is the trickiest for home cooks to master?
That’s hard to say. I’m not the typical home cook, but it does seem that people tend to have trouble with properly cooking a steak. This is one of the easiest techniques to learn, but requires attention and home cooks tend to be distracted by any number of things – cooking other dishes, children, spouses, television, or any of a multitude of other things going on outside the kitchen. Focus and attention to detail is important in a number of different techniques that are often viewed as “tricky” (such as cooking a souffle, pastry making, or roasting a standing rib roast). Mastery of focus and attention to detail is where the real trickiness is.
6. What did you like about cooking with the Anolon Nouvelle Copper Stainless Steel 3-Quart Saute Pan?
The pan is a great size for preparing meals for two people. I especially like that it doesn’t limit which cooking techniques I use – it heats evenly on the stove and has no issues going into the oven to braise a dish and back out to reduce a sauce. It also cleans up easily with a quick scrub and with a little Barkeepers Friend for “like new” performance every time.
7. We’d love to hear what you plan to bake or cook for the holidays, and if you’ll be experimenting with any new techniques, equipment or recipes.
By the time this is published, I’ll have prepared a large Frenched center loin pork roast for a holiday potluck at my home (we try to do a dinner every month). I plan on playing with a new recipe I saw in Cook’s Country magazine involving a dessert that is half chocolate cake and half flan!